The first time I saw La La Land, I didn’t get the songs. Too busy with the beautiful visuals (by cinematographer Linus Sandgren) and the fragile, floating, failing romance between Sebastian and Mia, my review barely mentions them at all. The second time I saw the movie, the songs were more foregrounded in my mind, and the third time? Well, the third time I loved them – and I loved one more than the others.
Mia has been persuaded, well, bullied, by Sebastian to have one last audition, her confidence shattered by casting agents treating her shabbily in the past – and by the taller, better-looking actresses who always seem to be standing in the lift with her. (This veneer of The Ordinary clings to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling throughout the film – it’s why they neither sing nor dance with the Hollywood precision that comes from an education in a hothouse stage school or at the crack of a studio head’s whip, a point lost on many of the film’s now legion wiseguy detractors).
We know Mia’s call was the result of her (failed) one-woman play, but we don’t know what the play was about – unless we recall seeing the Eiffel Tower in the playbill. With no audition script, Mia is asked to tell a story… and we get Audition (The Fools Who Dream).
Mia, initially hesitantly, then with more confidence, recounts her eccentric aunt’s life in Paris, speaking then singing, as the emotions take hold – which is how musicals work. Just a piano accompaniment at first, in a minor key (I think) as Emma Stone’s voice glides from breathy to clear and ultimately to strong, without ever belting it out like a diva.
It’s acting-singing of the highest order, but also the diametric opposite, in every sense, of what the genre expects or a female lead’s triumphant number (say Barbra Streisand’s virtuoso Don’t Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl). In a film derided by some for its safe choices, the song, the performance and the directing demonstrate unprecedented boldness, the artistic choices mirroring Mia’s seizing of her once-in-a-lifetime shot. If this scene falls flat, the movie is not lost, but it’s diminished significantly – writer-director Damien Chazelle has plenty of chips in this pot and turns over ace after ace.
The music (by Justin Hurwitz) and lyrics (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) work together to illustrate Mia’s changing psychology, but also tell us a much bigger story about creative people, outsiders, the ones who know the value of everything and the price of nothing, in a world too full of Oscar Wilde’s cynics. It speaks of risk-taking, of the physical and mental stress of the believing in oneself, but with none of the bombast of Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love Of All.
Suddenly, strings swell and Stone sings strongly a beautiful refrain, never needed more than in this grim age of humourless martinets in power and online…
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colours to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that's why they need us
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays
And here's to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that break
Here's to the mess we make.
I don’t know about you, but every time I hear those lines, I want to stand up and punch the air and shout: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’
The song’s coda, back in a minor key, underlines the debt Mia (and by extension, all of us) owe to The Fools. I’ve never lost the sense of privilege I feel whenever I stare at great paintings, read great books, see great films – and I don’t think I’ve ever been reminded of that privilege with more elegance, more heart, more beauty than in this song.
Gary Naylor writes about cricket at the Guardian and about theatre at Broadwayworld. He tweets at @garynaylor999